Bladesmiths, or knife smiths if you prefer, spend years honing their craft. Some of the top knife makers in the world have knives that can sell for thousands of dollars. They carefully select their materials and consider their design before they even begin to consider putting metal to the grinding stone. When it’s time to create the final blade edge prior to sale, most professionals turn to stones and leather to hand grind and hone the edge. But what if you could take the best rationale for hand sharpening and apply it to a machine? That’s what the Tormek T-4 Water Cooled Sharpener does for us.
Why Hand Sharpen Instead of Using a Grinder?
In my work with Parker Street Ministries, an urban ministry, I deal with all kinds of cutting tools from knives to axes to lawn mower blades and almost anything in between. In using a high RPM grinder to sharpen blades, I notice that there is a lot of heat generation and sparks flying. When sharpening lawn mower blades, sometimes the heat gets so high that you can even see discoloration on the blade when it cools. Give that a good tap with a hammer. Chances are, it’s going to chip right out.
The Tormek T-4 uses water cooling and low RPM’s to keep the heat generation to a bare minimum. This eliminates the loss of hardness that comes along with high speed, high heat grinding. It’s also one reason that professional bladesmiths tend to stick to hand sharpening. They know that heat build-up will damage the steel. The T-4 runs cool enough that every blade I sharpened was still cool enough to touch without thinking about it.
Better Blade Control
The other reason that professionals stick to hand sharpening is for the amount of control they have over the blade. Watching a bladesmith in action, their sharpening technique is as smooth a great violinist playing a Stradivarius – it’s an art form. The Tormek T-4 offers pros the ability to use their decades-in-the-making honing technique but with the convenience of a motor-driven stone and leather wheels. For those of us that aren’t quite there, Tormek offers a series of jigs (sold separately) to help us achieve precision. Jigs are available for knives, axes, turning tools, scissors, drill bits, and more.
Getting the Tormek T-4 Ready to Work
Setting up the Tormek T-4 is super simple. The grinding stone and universal support are the only pieces that need to be installed. That’s just a matter of slipping the universal support into the holes on the top or bottom, and a single bolt to hold the grinding stone in place. The leather honing wheel comes pre-installed on the opposite side.
The build quality also seems really solid. I didn’t take it apart to see, but the plastic housing (with a cast zinc top that supports the motor and shaft) seems to protect a well-built motor from the feel and sound of it.
Inside the Box
The Tormek T-4 includes everything you need to get started except the jigs needed for your specific applications. There is a stone grinder for when you need to reshape the grinding stone. You’ll also get a Tormek DVD, honing compound, AngleMaster edge guide, and “Water Cooled Sharpening of Edge Tools” book. The book is an incredible asset for someone that hasn’t spent years learning the technique with a bladesmith. More thoughts on that a little later though.
There is some disagreement as to whether grinding toward the blade is better than grinding away from it. Tormek says that they have found no notable differences in edge quality between the two. However, grinding towards the blade lends to being able to put greater pressure on the blade. They’ve developed suggestions on which way to set your blade depending on what you’re sharpening. The Universal Support can install in two positions to get the grind direction you need.
Tormek’s Sharpening Guide Book
“Water Cooled Sharpening of Edge Tools” is the guide book that is included with the Tormek T-4. For the user that isn’t already a professional bladesmith, there is a ton of valuable information inside. I found it an easy read. Even with my experience, I found there was still a lot to learn.
Inside, you’ll find the book divided into 6 sections. The first two sections deal with general sharpening and Tormek’s sharpening methods. The novice bladesmith will gain a lot of knowledge about sharpening and honing here. It won’t give you the near-perfect technique that requires years to learn, but you’ll have the theory to get started.
From there, you’ll find information and techniques on each of the grinding jigs and accessories. The book wraps up with maintenance tips and Tormek’s entire family of products. Reading through this book is like taking a college class in sharpening. It really is that comprehensive and instructive.
Putting the Tormek T-4’s Nose to the Grindstone
Okay, so I couldn’t resist putting a “nose to the grindstone” comment in here somewhere… Like I said earlier, setting up the Tormek T-4 was super easy. Before sharpening the hatchet, fixed blade hunting knife, and kitchen knife that I wanted to get started with, I went ahead and read up on Tormek’s recommendations for each type of jig I wanted to use.
The first thing you need to do is fill the water trough. You’re going to need some additional water because as it runs, the stone will soak up a surprising amount of water. You’ll also want to use some light machine oil to prepare the leather honing wheel before applying the honing compound. When you turn on the Tormek T-4, you’ll notice that this sharpener is incredibly quiet. The low-speed motor and water-cooled grinding just don’t combine to create much noise. For me, that’s a major plus.
Look, Ma, No Sparks!
During the sharpening process, the water will be pulled up the wheel and take away the metal grindings that would spark on other machines. They are deposited in the trough at the bottom. While sharpening, you are able to maintain the control necessary for a precise blade edge since you can keep your fingers very close to the knife edge. The lack of heat build-up and slow speed ensure that your fingers won’t suffer any damage.
Gettin’ Jiggy With It
I used a jig for each of the two knives and the hatchet that I sharpened. The results gave me a reason to pause. I realized that while I’m comfortable sharpening all kinds of blades, this system gives me the ability to take it to another level. I also recognized that the Tormek T-4 is capable of sharpening tools that I would not have thought I could do on my own.
Remember when I said that you won’t damage your fingers a minute ago? That was while maintaining control of the blade during the sharpening process. You’re going to be left with an incredibly sharp blade. If you decide to test that by running it across your skin as so many people do, Tormek has thoughtfully included some bandages for you.
For a low-speed sharpening system, the Tormek T-4 is fast and produces some outstanding results. It only took a few passes on each side with the grinding stone to achieve the angle I was going for. Moving over to the leather honing wheel, I was impressed with how quickly it removed the burr and polished my hunting knife. I can see how a person could easily sharpen 20 blades or more in an hour with this system. Of course, for an incredibly sharp and precise grind, you’ll want to take your time. If you choose, you could have a work crew’s EDCs ready to go back to work in a hurry though.
The Tormek T-4 Water Cooled Sharpener is not a tool for novices. It is a Pro-level sharpener that a professional bladesmith can use to sharpen or produce the initial grind of a new knife on. For the hobbyist, you can turn your shed into a knife smith’s shop. The uninitiated need to understand that this is not a tool that you just take out of the box and start using. You need to take the time to learn about how to properly sharpen. While the book can help you with that, I would highly recommend spending some time with a pro before thinking you can start from nothing and become a bladesmith overnight.
For the professional, you’re going to be good to go with just the machine and your already-honed technique. For someone that doesn’t have the technique as precise as the master bladesmith, you’ll want to order a few of the jigs in order to get the same level of precision in your blade edges.
The design of this tool looks to have been well thought out to provide years of use without worry. That’s backed up with a 7-year warranty to boost your confidence. For me, the Tormek T-4 is worth the $400 price tag. The results are simply better than I can get by hand with where I am in my technique. Plus, it gets those results much faster.
If you are willing to take the time to learn and practice, you can sharpen almost any tool’s blade with this. The T-4 is an exceptional grinder for blades. The only flaw that I found in this machine is me. If only the Tormek T-4 came with a master bladesmith, it would be perfect!